In 2006, Betty Friedan, the one person many believe launched the modern women's movement, died at age 85. It speaks to the success of the movement--and its limitations--that many women, even many feminists, had little to say about her death.
In 1963, Friedan's book The Feminine Mystique exploded onto the literary scene. Its publisher did not expect the occasionally dense analysis of women's condition to do so well; only 3000 copies were produced in the first printing. But the book quickly climbed toward the top of the bestseller list and provoked widespread discussion.
Ironically, Friedan had intended to write a book challenging the widespread belief that a college education soured women on lives of domesticity. But when she interviewed former classmates at Smith College in preparation, she discovered something entirely different: they were vaguely, often apologetically, dissatisfied with their lives. Many of them enjoyed reasonable prosperity, healthy children, and caring husbands, but they felt "empty," "incomplete," or chronically "tired." They were talented and well educated but they felt profound discontent.
Friedan labeled this discontent the "problem that has no name" and she linked it largely to the pressures women faced to conform to an idealized vision of femininity. Many young women attained first-rate educations, and many launched successful careers. But they felt obliged to abandon their academic or career plans upon marriage. Unable to pursue their own ambitions, they were forced to construct identities through their husbands and to find meaning in their roles as housewives and mothers. When many did not, they felt guilty and inadequate.
In constructing this analysis, Friedan drew upon her own experiences. She graduated summa cum laude from Smith and then entered a graduate psychology program at UC Berkeley. But she left school in order to please a threatened boyfriend. Shortly after, she moved to New York and began working as a writer, but she gave this up as well when she married and started a family in 1947.
Friedan's basic history was echoed in interview after interview in The Feminine Mystique, and apparently, her story also resonated with millions of readers across the country. The book's response convinced Friedan that women's "nameless, aching dissatisfaction" demanded more than literary therapy, and so in 1966, she joined others in forming NOW—the National Organization for Women. Aimed at bringing women into "full participation in the mainstream of American society" and enjoying "all the privileges and responsibilities thereof in truly equal partnership with men," NOW held its first conference in October of 1966, when Friedan was elected president.
Initially, NOW's energies were devoted primarily to fighting employment discrimination. NOW successfully lobbied the federal government to prohibit gender discrimination by federal contractors and pressured the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to prohibit sex-segregated job ads. Other victories were filled with as much symbolic as real significance. For example, airlines were forced to abandon their practice of firing stewardesses when they married or turned 32. But over time, NOW's agenda grew more diverse. It lobbied Congress for federally subsidized child care, passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, and inclusion of Title IX in the 1972 Education Act, guaranteeing women equal access to educational opportunities. NOW promoted lesbian rights, worked to protect abortion rights, and encouraged colleges to introduce women's studies courses.
By 2006, NOW could boast a huge legacy, yet many claimed that the course first set by Friedan was too narrow. The problem, they argued, was that Freidan's own experiences were too limited. While she understood and spoke powerfully to the experiences of relatively affluent women like herself, she knew nothing about women who were poor, non-white, or forced by their circumstances into work in factories or domestic service. While Friedan lobbied to open up businesses and the professions to educated women, critics said that she never considered the other women who would be "called in to take care of the children and maintain the home if more women like herself were freed from their house labor and given equal access with white men to the professions." These women, facing a different type of oppression, were not as well served by NOW's early agenda, Friedan's critics claimed. Moreover, to these women, Friedan's "nameless, aching dissatisfaction" was foreign and even indulgent. Radical feminist bell hooks argued that Freidan's book was "a case study of narcissism, insensitivity, sentimentality, and self-indulgence," especially in the chapter in which Friedan labeled the middle-class home a "comfortable concentration camp." It was absurd, hooks argued, to compare "the psychological effects of isolation on white housewives and the impact of confinement on the self-concept of prisoners in Nazi concentration camps."37
For many of Friedan's critics, her early refusal to complicate feminism's agenda by promoting lesbian rights was one of her greatest sins. Calling lesbians the "lavender menace," Friedan insisted that the provocative issue of gay rights would endanger the more critical goal (in her mind) of securing women's equal access to employment, education, and reproductive rights.
Eventually, Friedan regretted her early stance on the issue. But still, hers remained a more moderate form of feminism. She followed The Feminine Mystique with The Second Stage, a book that argued that feminists had erred in believing that progress lay in imitating the public lives of men. The feminine mystique had been replaced by a feminist mystique, she argued, that set its sights on the wrong objective. "The equality we fought for isn't livable, isn't workable," she now said, arguing that the business and professional world could be as dehumanizing as the 1950s home.38 Therefore, women and men needed to work together to construct a more fulfilling understanding of life and success that found room for work, marriage, and family.
The debate over Freidan's legacy will continue within the women's movement. Those who argue that the movement she launched was too timid may point to a long list of troubling statistics. Women, on average, still earn far less than men for the work they do; in 2008, women earned 77 cents for every dollar earned by men.39 Women still make up more than half of America's poor. In every ethnic, racial, and age category, more adult women than men live in poverty.40 While women are more likely to vote than men, women made up only 17% of Congress in 2009.41 The number of women running Fortune 500 companies is growing, but they still represent only 2% of the CEOs of America's largest corporations.42 Many feminists believe that the Supreme Court's 2007 decision in Gonzales v. Carhart and Gonzales v. Planned Parenthood signaled its intent to overturn Roe v. Wade's protection of abortion. And lesbians have gained the right to marry in only a handful of states.
Yet, others will argue that while much work remains, Friedan inspired and led a hugely successful movement. Women currently earn more bachelor's and master's degrees than men do (59% and 61%, respectively, of all degrees awarded in 2008). And they have made extraordinary gains in occupations and fields all but closed to women a few decades ago. Nationwide there are 84,000 woman police officers, 9,000 woman firefighters, and 37,000 woman pilots. There are 315,000 female lawyers, and 278,000 women physicians and surgeons. Women have even made inroads into formerly all-male bastions like the army. In 1950, women made up less than 2% of the military; in 2006 the figure had risen to 15%. In just over 1/5 of America's households, women are better educated than their husbands. In just under 1/5 of America's households, women earn at least $5000 more than their husbands. The number of girls participating in high school sports has doubled since the introduction of Title IX in 1975; 168,000 young women now play college sports.43
Clearly, there are statistics to support both Friedan's defenders and detractors. But perhaps the best measurement of Friedan's contributions lies in the fact that so many young women have never heard of her. One college professor reported that teaching Friedan was like teaching Jane Austin—a voice from a distant and unrecognizable past. "You have to tell them how women dressed up to go to the market, how women's magazines obsessed about the fragile male ego and how dropping out of college to get married was indulgently viewed because you weren't going to use your education anyway."44
Quite possibly, this need to explain the context for Friedan's book offers the most powerful testimony to its impact.